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University tests Blackboard alternatives

Written By Lauren Clouser, Staff Writer

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Point Park is gradually growing closer to finding an alternative to Blackboard, the university’s learning management system (LMS).

The LMS Committee, made up of 13 faculty and staff members, is considering four options for the update, which include Blackboard Ultra, the updated version of Point Park’s current system, Canvas, Schoology and D2L Brightspace.

The committee conducted student surveys during the weeks of March 7 and March 15 in order to determine which program the students preferred.

According to Nelson Chipman, the executive director of Point Park Online and the chair of the LMS Committee, the committee is compiling data from the student surveys.

“We had 317 student surveys completed across the systems,” Chipman said. “We did a really in-depth two week trial and also took systems into classrooms, so at the beginning of class some instructors allowed us to come in and test it that way; we got some really robust feedback.”

Chipman declined to give any details on which program seemed to be the most popular because the LMS Committee is currently conducting faculty surveys and did not want to create any bias. The faculty testing period will end on Apr. 13.

The LMS Committee also tested the programs and gave each one a score. According to Chipman, some scored higher than others, but all received good scores.

“Based on that,” Chipman said, “we’re already moving toward improvement for students and for faculty. The thing is which one is going to sort of rise to the top.”

From there, Chipman stated that the committee would compile the data from student input, faculty input and the scores from the LMS Committee. They then plan to provide a recommendation to the provost by the end of this month on which program to use.

Chipman mentioned there may be several favorites, and in that case, they would recommend two programs.

If there is a program change, next year will be a transition year, which Chipman stated was due to the university’s contract with Blackboard, which will end in December.

“We’ll have sort of a year to migrate,” Chipman said. “By the fall of 2018 we’ll be solely on a new system, so there will be a little bit of overlap as we migrate from one system to the new. I guess there’s always the chance that we’ll stay with where we’re at, I would be surprised if we do based on data that’s being collected, but I suspect that next year will be a transition year.”

Point Park has used Blackboard since before 2012, and hosted itself before that. Chipman explained that Blackboard was one of the only LMS systems available, which is likely why Point Park originally decided to use it.

“I think that at the time it was sort of what was the best that was out there,” Chipman said, “and just over time they have added more features and more systems but it’s been sort of a clunky build on top of each other and the system has gotten a little bit more top heavy.”

Todd Slater, an instructional technologist and LMS Committee member, stated that most of the current LMS programs are very similar.

“At this point with the competition everybody’s pretty much at feature parody,” Slater said. “I mean you can do the same things with every system for the most part, so the challenge that we have is picking one that is the most user friendly for faculty and students.”

According to Chipman, it is important for the system to be user friendly, particularly because Point Park has roughly 700 online students.

“When you look at that large student population that’s only engaging with the university in an online format, the LMS becomes your campus,” Chipman said. “We’re trying to find a campus that’s more inviting and easier to use for those online students.”

If the system does change, Chipman stated that faculty would not necessarily have to redo everything they have on Blackboard.

“The number one question that we get from faculty is ‘how much work will I have to do if we move to a new system?’” Chipman said. “And the answer has always been ‘you won’t have to do much.’”

According to Slater, the committee has been contacting schools that have switched from Blackboard to another program, and in some cases the faculty finds it easier to start from scratch. Slater also stated there are companies that can help to transfer this information.

“There are different options in terms of the services that the vendors provide,” Slater said, “so some of them will help us do the migration. There are third party companies out there that also help do that migration.”

The switch will be a transition not only for faculty, but for students as well. Kara Sayers, a freshman sports, arts and entertainment major, believed the upgrade would be beneficial, but it would be an adjustment.

“I think everything could be improved,” Sayers said. “But I think it could take a while for everyone to get used to a new system.”

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